The Washington Post: Battle of the DC underpass: Art parks vs. tent cities

The Washington Post, September 2, 2019: Battle of the DC underpass: Art parks vs. tent cities

When Randolph Nelson is having breakfast — Fruity Pebbles in a recycled takeout container — outside his front door, he greets the commuters walking past.

And “97% of the people just put their heads down and hurry past, like I’m a piece of trash they want to get away from,” said Nelson, whose front door closes with a zipper.

He wishes they’d stop and talk to him a bit, outside his tent in a D.C. encampment, in one of the city’s hippest, most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

“If they could just take five friggin’ minutes. Three minutes. Or how about 60 seconds to see that I’m a person, too. I was a millionaire at 17, I pumped gas when I was 30. I was a drug dealer when I was young and worked 10 years for a maintenance crew for the USDA,” he told me on a morning when person after person walked by him.
But most of his new neighbors don’t want to talk to him. They want him gone.

“Used and bloody hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia, rotting food, trash, broken glass, public nudity, prostitution, sales of illegal drugs, and human urine and feces are encountered by those whose routes take them by the encampments and pervade the space in which encamped individuals are living,” wrote NoMa Business Improvement District President Robin-Eve Jasper, in a public letter decrying the state of those underpass encampments.

These underpasses — where train tracks pass over M, L and K streets in Northeast Washington — are at the heart of the city’s gentrification clash.

They are dark corridors of metal and stone that are an unavoidable walking path connecting the condos to the rest of the city. The business district leaders have done backflips trying to make that path pleasant, filling two of the tunnels with artsy light sculpture projects they held international design competitions to create. They got the encampments cleared out, all in the name of public art. There were even cocktail events to welcome the bright, playful light installations into the urine-soaked underpasses they insist on calling art parks.

It took less than four months for the tents on L Street to return, now illuminated by “Lightweave” overhead.

But for most of the people living there, the issue is a profound lack of affordable housing, created by the breakneck development that has made room for places with cute names like NoMa.

If you don’t believe it, look at a recent study that determined the District is, hands-down, the absolute worst place in the United States for displacement caused by gentrification.

In a span of 13 years, more than 20,000 African American Washingtonians have been booted by primarily white, high-income new residents, according to a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Add to that, another recent study found that the District is one of the most difficult places in the nation right now to establish new and affordable housing.

Solutions have to do with active engagement in city policies and politics, in voting and caring about what happens to all Washingtonians. It’s about thinking outside your own waterfall-quartz-countertops comfort zone.

Nelson, for now, just wants to be treated like a person while he tries to right his life.

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